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“Food is a dreamspace”: Vittles founder on revolutionising restaurant writing

Elitist and inaccessible food writing needs a dose of politics, Jonathan Nunn says, because the biggest issues of our time are all food issues.

By Sarah Manavis

On a typical day when I open my phone and click on Jonathan Nunn’s Instagram, I see a series of images that are crucially unlike what most would expect from the account of a food writer. There are usually multiple plates from multiple London restaurants — mostly cheap and situated well outside the city’s centre. The food will be genuine show of London’s diversity: Indonesian, Greek, Lithuanian, Jamaican, Filipino or Nigerian, and often unglamorous, plated simply and generously.

An initial glance might lead you to believe Nunn is just some guy who lives in the suburbs – one with an encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s restaurants and an apparently bottomless stomach. “It is very easy to characterise my writing as, ‘This guy just goes to Zone 4 and writes about a restaurant,’” Nunn himself says. But he is also the biggest emerging voice championing an entirely new type of UK food media. 

In March 2020 Nunn founded and launched Vittles, a food publication hosted on the newsletter platform Substack, that seeks to fill the large gaps left behind by the UK’s elite and inaccessible food media. It is published twice weekly and varies from serious reportage on exploitation in the chocolate industry to intelligent deconstructions of Salt Bae and, its most read article ever, a “hyper-regional” list of chippy traditions across Britain and Ireland. Its high-profile fans include the reviewer (and son of Camilla) Tom Parker Bowles, who is a long-time supporter of Nunn’s, the writer and Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh, and Nigella Lawson, who has recommended it numerous times to her followers on Twitter and gifted a subscription to her friend, the author Jeanette Winterson

Nunn, 32, didn’t begin writing about food until 2018. Growing up in the north London neighbourhood of Bounds Green, his locals were Cypriot, Turkish and Kurdish restaurants and, after moving back home following his degree in mathematics, he used to go on long night walks up and down Green Lanes, breaking up the walks by visiting these restaurants. 

“I was just kind of eating for the sake of it,” Nunn tells me, via Zoom, “and then eventually, among friends, I started to get a reputation as the person who gives a recommendation for somewhere to eat.” He began consuming writing about food while working in a tea shop and, after a few years, became known among a certain left-wing corner of Twitter for his commentary on the UK’s food media. His break came after an editor at Eater saw him go viral for mocking Jamie Oliver. “Jamie Oliver was in his ‘ban eating this’ phase,” Nunn says, “and tweeted something like ‘What are you having for breakfast?’ and I just quoted it, ‘Ass, ban that, you coward.’”

“I just had this real sense of injustice about the fact that London is so lied about in the media, and especially lied about by people living in London,” Nunn says. “I wanted to write about the London that I knew, and to write about a version of London which I had grown up with and seemed more relevant to me than the picture of London which had been portrayed within restaurant writing.” 

That picture, he says, is a huge part of what motivated him to start Vittles. “In the UK, because reviews run in national papers, there’s this assumption that the reader won’t go to whatever restaurant they’re reviewing, and what the reader wants is a very well-crafted piece of writing to read at the weekend. And at some point, what happened is they kind of became a satire on urban life, particularly in London — jokes about small plates and expensive restaurants in Mayfair, where it’s easy to go: ‘Look at what the most ridiculous parts of London are getting up to.’” He believes this is why the lion’s share of reviews are written about restaurants in Mayfair, Soho, Fitzrovia and Chelsea. “The problem is that, when they write about other areas, they still keep that register up and really punch down at neglected parts of London.”

Nunn saw (and still sees) three major problems in the food media: space, money and politics — a lack of them all. “I very naively thought that all the problems were down to individual restaurant writers,” he says, “but there’s a very big case to say that if you replaced all of the restaurant writers and recipe columnists with a new generation of people, you would have exactly the same problems happening over again, because you have the same editors who have the same ideas of what is considered important.”

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He says the poor pay makes the industry inaccessible to writers from non-elite backgrounds. “If you have a look at the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times’s food sections, they’re practically indistinguishable from each other, even though these papers have completely different outlooks. The food section is kind of seen as this space where politics doesn’t really exist, which is going to be a real problem in the next ten years, because the biggest issues of our time are all food issues: climate change, immigration and the rising intolerance towards immigrants, the service economy.”

Vittles aims to address these issues by giving space to anyone who feels their food culture is under or misrepresented, whereas most space in food media, Nunn feels, is eaten up by longstanding writers who have a “supreme court position for life”. He gives the example of a writer who wanted to publish a plantain recipe but had the idea rejected by a well-known broadsheet. “I’m not going to name the paper,” he says, “but the reason they gave was that so many of their readers wouldn’t know where to get plantains and it’s like, come on. You can get this in any city centre that has some West African, Caribbean or Latin American immigration. It’s not an obscure ingredient. But Ottolenghi can put anything in his column and it’s all fine.”

Writers don’t need prior experience to write for Vittles and it pays well — £500 per piece for writers and £200 for illustrators. “I just want people who have an interesting or unexpected viewpoint on things that they don’t see reflected in mainstream food media,” Nunn says. “The writers are there — they just haven’t had the opportunity.”

Vittles initially began as a newsletter to talk about the food industry as it adapted in the pandemic, with its first article published the same day the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. When it comes to Covid-19’s impact on hospitality, Nunn says we haven’t begun to reach anything close to recovery. “What I know from people who are better placed, like chefs within the industry, is that we haven’t seen the economic effects of the pandemic yet — it’s been delayed.

“[Recovery will depend on] whether the government sides with businesses or landlords. And I’m pretty sure I know which side they’re going to come down on.”

In the last two years Nunn has taken an interest in the rise of food delivery services, and won an FPA Media Award in 2021 for a report about these apps for the Economist’s 1843 Magazine, riding as a Deliveroo driver during the first summer of the pandemic. He himself has never used any of these services and sees major downsides to their dominance. “The restaurant is one of the very few spaces where you come face-to-face with people who are providing you with a service and with labour,” he says. “You interact with servers, you know that in the back there is a kitchen, sometimes it might even be an open kitchen, and you come face-to-face with that. And there is just a decades-long tendency, mainly in the West, to be more and more comfortable with labour and services being hidden. It’s very dangerous to go down the road where this labour becomes hidden from us.”

Vittles will celebrate its second birthday next month and will continue expanding beyond its original mission of exploring the effects of the pandemic. Just after Nunn and I spoke, Vittles started its new column “Red Wall Feasts”, about food culture in the north of England. “There definitely is a gap between London and the north of England,” he says, “and I think there’s a huge amount of resentment on both sides. But, actually, although they are extremely different places and their problems manifest in very different ways, the problems that someone faces in an outer borough of London are very similar to the problems people face in a neglected northern town.”

He says he wants the column to bridge that gap and explore the untouched trends in northern food. “The cuisine is a lot more promiscuous there. There’s much more playfulness about South Asian food, for example, like: why not put butter chicken in a lasagne?” (This he says is not something he made up, but one that’s real and he’s eager to try.)

For Nunn, what makes Vittles different is its aim to cover not just the labour and culture of food, but also the fun and joy of eating. “Of course you can write about the restaurant as a mechanics diagram of all these forces being pushed on it, like immigration, gentrification, urban planning and labour,” he says, “and yet, food is also a dreamspace in which you can take a huge amount of pleasure, and it can be extremely frivolous as well.” Near the end of our conversation, I note that many of the industry’s biggest names are Vittles fans. “I’m not particularly interested, actually, in what the rest of the British food world thinks about Vittles,” he says. “I’m more interested in reaching a kind of audience outside of that.”

He says this is what he wants most: “I don’t see a meaningful distinction between food writing and other writing: there’s good writing and there’s bad writing. And when you look at a lot of our pieces, you can take away the food element and the article would still somehow stand up about being about something. I’ve described it as the Macguffin, the Hitchcock plot device. Food is the thing that the article revolves around but, ultimately, it’s not about that by the time you’ve finished it, it’s turned out to be about something else.”

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